Beyond the Lectionary Text: Habakkuk 3
by Chelsey Harmon
To really understand the gravity of the prayer that Habakkuk offers in this chapter, you cannot skip over the two preceding chapters. This is easily avoided when you preach this text in a series; but if you’re highlighting chapter 3 only, you’d do well to lay the groundwork of Habakkuk’s questions to God from earlier on, because the power of the prayer that closes the book comes from understanding how God got Habakkuk from questioning God to praising the Lord and trusting him.
Though the text contains a prophecy from God for the people, the impetus of the prophecy comes from Habakkuk speaking to Yahweh on behalf of the people (whether they know it or not); this is unlike the other prophets in the Old Testament. Some scholars describe Habakkuk as a ‘transitional prophet’— though he is a prophet, the content of the book has a lot of the tone and style of wisdom literature alongside its prophetic material. In fact, when you read Habakkuk’s questions and God’s response, you may be reminded of the book of Job, which asks similar questions. (Instead of being on the personal level as Job is, Habakkuk asks questions about fairness and justice on an international level.)
In chapter 1, Habakkuk asks God why he is allowing his people to do wrong and be violent. Where is justice? Why isn’t God listening to the cries of the righteous? God answers Habakkuk: “I’m coming. I am going to act through the Chaldeans against Judah.” Hold up! Habakkuk’s confused about God’s decision to use an even more unjust people to chastise Judah. He basically says to the Lord, “Wait a minute. Those guys are just as bad, if not worse than us. Isn’t this just going to making things worse, spreading more violence and strife? The Chaldeans aren’t reflections of what I know to be true about you! You are holy and you have told us that your ways are holy.” For the rest of the opening chapter, Habakkuk describes to God how awful his chosen foreign agents actually are.
Then, in chapter 2, Habakkuk says that he is going to stand on guard and wait for God to explain. As Habakkuk expected, the overtake of the nation by the Chaldeans (aka Babylon under men like Nebuchadnezzar) isn’t the whole story. “There is still a vision for the appointed time…” God promises, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” God then gives Habakkuk a very prophet-like warning for the conquerors, five woes for the wicked; they will be held accountable.
Habakkuk 3 is Habakkuk’s prayerful response to this prophecy.
Like Job, Habakkuk does not actually get an answer to his question. God doesn’t feel the need to explain himself or his choices to his people. Instead, God reveals his power and his presence at work in the world. And like Job, Habakkuk is humbled by the sight of God’s powerful presence, choosing to be satisfied without answers as though his questions were powerfully swept out of him, replaced by an awareness of God’s awesomeness.
What does Habakkuk see that makes him stand silent and in awe before God? What does Habakkuk now pray for others to see and to hear so that they too may believe and trust and live in God’s holiness? How does Habakkuk go from wanting God to explain himself to his petition in verse 2: “in wrath may you remember mercy”?
“God came… His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.” The theophany (appearance of God) in verse 3-7 seems like it could have come out of a summer blockbuster movie: a powerful figure with supernatural ability to take charge of the sky, dark waves of critters carrying disease leading his chariot which is followed by a black misty cloud of plagues that lingers over its trail. The powerful figure steps down out of the chariot and his steps make the earth quake, the people gathered on their city walls see him look in their direction and they try to hide from his eyesight. Even the mountains crumble to dirt mounds in his presence.
If such a figure were to appear in a movie today, it would most assuredly be as the villain, not the hero; there is much to fear here. But all wrapped into one picture for us by Habakkuk is the story of the heroic Saviour God at work for the Israelites since the exodus: God showed his power at Sinai by controlling the sky with thunderous clouds and flashes of lightning to show his presence. (Exodus 19) The Lord sent plagues and pestilence into the land of Egypt when Pharaoh refused to let the slaves go. (Exodus 7-11) The walls of Jericho crumbled, not because of anything that the Israelites did themselves, but because they obediently followed the Ark of the Covenant (the symbol of God’s presence) and stood there while God made the city tremble until it was destroyed it. (Joshua 6)
The next section of Habakkuk’s prayer of awe is a recounting of the battle he sees God carrying out in the world. The wrath is mighty, and like before, it is rooted in the story of God and his people. At the Reed Sea and at the Jordan River, Yahweh split the waters in battle for his people. (Exodus 13, Joshua 3) When Joshua and the Israelites meet a five-nation coalition near Jerusalem, the sun and moon stand still by God’s hand; at the same battle, the Lord threw down huge hailstones on the enemy. (Joshua 10)
Though God is very angry, furious even, Habakkuk realizes that it’s because of God’s love for his people: “You came forth to save your people,” he prays in remembrance, “to save your anointed.” (v 13) To do so in the future, God will decimate the people he is using in Habakuk’s present/near future. They may come like a whirlwind now, gloating as they wreak havoc on the innocent (and the wicked), but the Lord will come mightily and forcefully, defeating not just this nation, but all chaos everywhere. In the Ancient Near East, water represented chaos, so the heavy imagery in verses 8-15 of God showing his supremacy over the water, battling against the waters, controlling and changing them, shows God’s power over not just the little battles, but the large cosmic battle of good versus evil. God wins. Period.
Seeing the battle’s landscape, hearing the Lord’s warning to preserve his holiness, having been reminded of God’s ultimate power and transcendence (much like Job who is confronted by God in the whirlwind), Habakkuk is rocked to the core of his being. Even when the mighty one is on your side, there is still fear. In verse 16 Habakkuk expresses how little each of us are in the face of our big God: having encountered God so vividly, he’s weak in the knees, unable to make a sound even though his lips are moving, all too aware of his finite fragility. The only thing to do when meeting God so vividly is to “wait quietly” for God to do as he has promised.
Having seen the future as God sees it, Habakkuk offers up his trust despite what his current circumstances seem to warrant. After he praises God along with all the earth by keeping silent (2.20), Habakkuk outlines his faith in God in verses 17-19: though everything that provides health and well-being on this earth may waste away or be destroyed, yet he will rejoice in the future victory of God, he will point to the salvation that God delivers. For Yahweh is his strength, now and forever, Yahweh is the one who secures his place in this world and raises him up to the heights.
I wonder if there’s more to that closing line. When Habakkuk declares that “God, the Lord, is my strength… [he] makes me tread upon the heights” he is saying that he trusts God to bring him to the places of safety and to closeness with him. The heights or high places, after all, have always symbolized communing with God. I wonder, though, if Habakkuk is also saying that the Lord lifts him out of the questions and worries so common to humanity to a higher plane of thinking and seeing— as God sees. Habakkuk started out by questioning God’s plan to use people who seemed to be the antithesis of who God is; to the human sensibility this does not seem right, let alone fair or just. Yet, God’s response to Habakkuk isn’t to explain but to let Habakkuk see things as Yahweh himself sees them. The Lord’s orientation and intent for his people to be saved has not changed; the Lord is still mighty to save. Who God is is more important than why he does things as he does them. To accept this, the mind must be raised to a higher state of critical thinking, experiencing “peace that passes understanding” and having faith for someone that does not seem proven in the facts.
There is one time I can think of when God does explain himself: in Jesus at the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16) Indeed, all of God’s actions are done out of his love for his people, Jew or Gentile, a long time ago or present day.
I often hear people say things like, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask God why _____.” or “I just want to know why God would let this happen.” The ‘why’ question is a tough one for us humans. The people I know who have done the best through tough circumstances have been able to get past the initial why questions about suffering and pain in this world and have instead focused on Jesus’ promise, the Holy Spirit’s constant companionship, and are able to sit silently in fear and awe before the Almighty. Randy Alcorn writes: “Sometimes we make the foolish assumption that our heavenly Father has no right to insist that we trust him unless he makes his infinite wisdom completely understandable to us. What we call the problem of evil is often the problem of our finite and fallen understanding. It was the hardest lesson I’d ever had to learn…. In our times of suffering, God doesn’t give answers as much as he gives himself.
Rev. Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community Church, Nanaimo, British Columbia.